For my money, the strangest moment of last night’s lopsided NBA Finals Game 1 came just after Cavaliers guard Matthew Dellavedova whacked Warriors forward Andre Iguodala in the dick and balls.
The sequence, if you missed it, came just before the end of the third quarter, and went like this: Dellavedova stumbled and committed a bad turnover at one end of the floor; then, trailing the ball in transition, he came up behind the ball-handler, Iguodala, reached around him with his right arm, swiped downward, and nailed Iguodala right in the dang junk; Iguodala turned on him angrily and the two went chest-to-chest for a few seconds before being separated by teammates.
Here’s the incident:
None of this, so far, is all that strange—least of all for these playoffs, the eventual recapping of which will include several chapters devoted to blows to various dicks and balls. The weird part came during the ensuing stoppage in play, while the referees reviewed the incident and decided how to adjudicate it, and ESPN/ABC’s broadcast team—Mike Breen, Mark Jackson, Jeff Van Gundy, and officiating consultant Steve Javie—discussed whether Dellavedova is a big bad meanie who slapped Iguodala in the dick and balls on purpose, and thus should be assessed a technical or flagrant foul, or if he’s just a reckless, uncoordinated oaf who accidentally slapped Iguodala in the dick and balls while making a play on the basketball, and thus should only receive a common personal foul.
Their consensus: Dellavedova is just a clumsy, heedless doofus who only accidentally clobbered Iguodala in the nards when he flailed at him wildly from behind while running at a near-sprint, so it’s just a regular foul. Or, as Jackson put it: “That’s just a foul. That’s all it is. That’s not intent—that’s a play on the basketball, and just accidentally gets Iguodala.”
At first glance, those sentences seem like they sorta go together, don’t they? Oh, it was only a play on the basketball, not an intentional or malicious attack on Iguodala’s testicles, therefore it’s not anything worse than a regular foul. And he may well be right about the intent part: shitty hand-eye coordination and general recklessness work perfectly well both to explain the event and as a complete list of Matthew Dellavedova’s basketball attributes.
But hang on. Why in particular should intent matter on a play like this? Take another look at the hit itself.
Grant that that’s a play on the basketball. Fine! It’s a shitty, sloppy, irresponsible, hopeless, after-the-fact play on the basketball, no different than when a beaten defender makes a wild haymaker play on the basketball against a shooter in midair, and it had no chance whatsoever to produce anything other than a foul, even if it hadn’t ended with Dellavedova karate-chopping Iguodala in the dick and balls. The ball was all the way on the other side of Iguodala’s body long before Dellavedova began his downward swipe. If he was making a play on the basketball, then he is a dangerously uncoordinated idiot. Why on earth should the rules carve out extra space in professional basketball for a dangerously uncoordinated idiot?
Intent-versus-haplessness is the legislative blind spot which allows Dellavedova to function in the NBA despite a near-total lack of professional-grade basketball skills and a style of play that consists in the main of him figuring out how to fall over in such a way that somebody wearing a different-colored shirt also falls over. Oh, well, he’s so uncoordinated and terrible at the game that he can’t even play without posing a danger to the people around him, but he’s just playing hard as hell, laying it all on the line for his team, so it’s not all that bad. Like the time, in last season’s playoffs, when he dove through the legs of Atlanta’s Kyle Korver to recover a loose ball, injuring Korver’s ankle in the process. Or this ghastly fucking slapstick routine that ended with Dellavedova’s legs clamped around the ankle of Chicago’s Taj Gibson. Or when Korver’s teammate, the normally mild-mannered Al Horford, got so fed up with Dellavedova’s insistence on turning every possession into the Royal Rumble that he dropped a People’s Elbow on him.
The Gibson and Horford incidents point to another way in which the NBA’s screwed-up values countenance a feckless clod like Dellavedova: He’s protected by the league’s zero-tolerance policy toward any deliberate acts of personal violence. Last night, Jackson and Van Gundy both argued that Iguodala should have been assessed a technical foul merely for whirling around and getting in Dellavedova’s face after Dellavedova hit him in the fucking nuts, even though Iguodala hadn’t actually done anything at all. If he’d given Dellavedova a good, hard, two-handed shove, even just as a reflexive response to being hit in the dick and balls, he’d have been ejected on the spot—like Gibson was when he reacted to Dellavedova tangling up his ankle, and Horford was when he came down elbow-first on Dellavedova in their scrum—even though the shove wouldn’t have hurt Dellavedova a tenth as much as a slap to the action district. And so Dellavedova has more latitude than the people he hurts by being too shitty at basketball to not hurt them.
Here is the thing. This type of stuff is bullshit at all levels. The guy at the park who has no idea how to play, and can’t avoid crashing into people because he’s incapable of changing direction or making determined athletic moves, is an actual danger to the knees and ankles and eyesockets and dicks and balls of the people around him. Everybody hates that guy, no matter what his intentions are. More to the point, he has no fucking business being out there, even if he hustles his way into the occasional steal. Matthew Dellavedova is that guy.
A poll of 24 random NBA coaches and assistants last year named Dellavedova the NBA’s dirtiest player, but that both misses the point and flatters Dellavedova. John Stockton was dirty. Dennis Rodman was dirty. Chris Paul is dirty. Draymond Green is dirty. They were and/or are good enough to line up dirty plays intentionally. Matthew Dellavedova may also be dirty, but he’s also, much more importantly, a clumsy, unskilled, reckless goon whose attempts at getting by in professional basketball cannot help but be injurious to the people around him. His presence on the court is a flagrant foul. He sucks, whether he intends to or not.